There’s something queer about the Commonwealth Games

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Image courtesy of Sports Media LGBT, available at:

By Patrick Vernon, Doctoral Researcher
Department of Political Science and International Studies (POLSIS)

The Commonwealth Games has been and gone! For two-weeks there was an unmistakable buzz about the city, and with a building-sized mechanical bull occupying pride of place outside the library, you really couldn’t miss the games being in town. Also striking about the games was the scale of the cover-up operation which sought to transform the city’s abandoned, brutalist and/or grey buildings (of which there are many) into a sea of colour, with colourful cladding and paint seemingly applied to anything that isn’t an active building site.

In the run up to the games, I remarked to my boyfriend that the city looks more like pride than it does during pride, with everything (and anything) that could be seen by the city’s estimated 1.1 million visitors emblazoned with the colours of the rainbow. Alongside the city’s physical appearance being distinctly pride themed, the character of this games is unique in that there has been a real focus on LGBTQ+ inclusion. The Birmingham Pride House was the first to be fully integrated into the games’ programming, and there was a distinctly pro-LGBTQ+ message forwarded by event organisers, with Tom Daley carrying the Queen’s baton into the opening ceremony flanked by five pride flag bearers, in what was described as a protest at anti-LGBT laws around the Commonwealth. Furthermore, just ahead of the games, Katie Sadler, the chair of the Commonwealth Games Federation, announced that “Despite wanting to take the event to Africa or the Caribbean in the future, countries with laws that didn’t match its values would be less likely to be successful with a bid”. This attempt to pressure countries with homophobic laws to reform them has been reproduced at the highest levels of government, with Boris Johnson using the Commonwealth Games to announce a new £2.7 million fund dedicated to Commonwealth LGBTQ+ rights campaigners.

The conversation about LGBTQ+ rights is, of course, an important one to have at the Commonwealth Games, given that over half of the organisation’s fifty-four member states criminalise homosexuality. Furthermore, the focus of Birmingham 2022 on making LGBTQ+ athletes, residents and visitors welcome through efforts such as the creation of Birmingham Pride House should undoubtedly be celebrated. That being said, there is something distinctly uncomfortable about the games’ official narrative being used as a platform to lecture countries who have poor rights for LGBTQ+ people – not because these governments shouldn’t be challenged, but because such statements fail to historicise these countries’ stance on homosexuality within what Andrew Delatolla calls “the imperial sexual politics of modernity”.

It must be remembered that the laws which continue to criminalise homosexuality in former British colonies are often the exact same laws that British colonists themselves imposed on the colonies as a technology of colonial governance. British laws such as the infamous section 377 which criminalises “carnal intercourse against the order of nature with any man, woman or animal” remain in place in a number of Commonwealth countries, such as Bangladesh and Pakistan. Furthermore, it needs to be remembered that sexual normativities have always been absolutely central to the colonial project, with early colonisation depending upon the use of heteronormative relationships and identities to frame Indigenous people as backwards and in need of civilising, due to the presence of same-sex relations and non-binary understandings of gender, for example, in pre-colonial societies. Given this history of Britain being the world’s largest exporter of homophobia, suggestions that Commonwealth countries in the Global South need to catch up with the UK’s LGBTQ+ rights record seem misplaced, at best.

Alongside sexual normativities being central to the initial process of colonisation, sexual politics is a key tool of colonialism in the present day. Describing this, renowned author Jasbir Puar coined the term homonationalism to highlight the way in which LGBTQ+ rights are used as “the barometer by which the legitimacy of, and capacity for national sovereignty is evaluated” for countries in the Global South, with the absence of LGBTQ+ rights used to legitimise colonial violence during the War on Terror. Relatedly, Puar highlights the way in which the recent extension of rights to certain (White, cis-gendered, neoliberal) queers in the West is bound to the rolling-back of rights for Muslims, both domestically and internationally, on the basis that they could be homophobic and/or terrorists. This process of homonationalism, through which the LGBTQ+ community and Muslims are pitted against each other, has very recently reared its head in Birmingham.

Most notably, the No Outsiders protests outside Anderton Park School have been frequently depicted in the media as a battle between regressive Muslims reluctant to modernise versus LGBTQ+ people, embodying the sexual freedom associated with life in the West. Such depictions are symptomatic of what Momin Rahman terms homocolonialism, whereby LGBTQ+ rights are portrayed as only being possible in the West and incompatible with Islamic culture, with this used to evidence Western cultural exceptionalism and universal Islamic homophobia, provoking a cycle of Islamophobia and homophobia. Given this British national context, in which Birmingham is depicted as a key battleground between Western freedom versus Islam, the use of the games as a grandstanding moment seems strange, unless the political aim of this is to expand the homocolonial binary between ‘good’ versus ‘bad’ cultures to a global scale.

Amongst claims that the UK has reached the zenith of civilisational development, it is easy to forget that life is actually quite difficult for LGBTQ+ people in the UK. Homophobic, biphobic and transphobic hate crimes are on the rise, including in Birmingham which has seen a number of particularly vicious attacks on LGBTQ+ people in recent years. Furthermore, the UK Government is leading a right-wing culture war which seeks to render the existence of trans people a political debate, as highlighted by author Shon Faye in her bestselling book ‘The Transgender Issue’. The most recent iteration of this was made clear by the current Conservative leadership race, in which the candidates seemingly competed for the most extremist policies, with Penny Mordaunt describing claims that she supports self-recognition of gender identity for trans people as a “smear”. It’s also important to note that whilst LGBTQ+ people might have rights in the UK, that queer lives are not “merely cultural” and that a decade of neoliberal austerity has rendered life extremely hard for many LGBTQ+ people, alongside basically everyone who isn’t a Conservative voter.

Returning to the Commonwealth Games themselves, I think it’s important to ask who the games’ pride agenda was designed to benefit? Whilst I’m sure that some athletes would have embraced, welcomed and been proud of the plethora of pride flags in the athletes’ village, it’s likely that some LGBTQ+ athletes didn’t feel all that attached to these flags, and that it made athletes who are not ‘out’ feel uncomfortable. Furthermore, the practice of celebrating sexual identities through a flag-waving form of LGBTQ+ pride promotes a very narrow form of queerness that is specific to Western culture. Reflecting on the existence of Birmingham 2022 as the proudly queerest Commonwealth Games in history, I think it’s important to recognise that we can be proud of the games being in Birmingham without subsuming them into a pride agenda which positions the UK at the apex of civilisation.

Would it really be that all bad if the UK was to accept its status as a mid-rate power, recognise the damage its colonial legacy has caused to most of its former colonies, and to stop telling the rest of the world how to behave? At the very least, the UK Government should recognise the existence of all LGBTQ+ people here before using the Commonwealth Games to tell its former colonies that they need to follow its model of inclusivity.  

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of Birmingham.

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